Winter territories of Green Sandpipers

Winter is a very different prospect for a Green Sandpiper that spends the non-breeding season in England, rather than Spain, Portugal or countries in northern Africa. Are British winterers living life ‘on the edge’ and how do they cope? One way is to defend resources within clearly-defined territories.

Life in Hertfordshire

blog2 preenKen Smith, Mike Reed and Barry Trevis have been studying a colour-ringed population of Green Sandpipers in Hertfordshire (an English county just north of London) since 1983. The focal point of their activities is Lemsford Spring, a Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust nature reserve. The site is  a set of disused watercress beds that provide plenty of freshwater shrimp (Gammarus pulex) in shallow lagoons fed by freshwater springs. Over the years they have been able to use their colour-ringed birds to study return rates from year to year, behaviour and local habitat use. Using radio-tags they have looked at nocturnal activity patterns and more recently they have been using GPS geolocators to find where their birds go to breed.

blog2 movementsThe highest numbers of Green Sandpipers in southern England occur in late summer, when many passage birds pass through the country, but a few birds stay for the whole winter. The Lemsford studies show that colour-ringed birds have a high return rate from one winter to the next. These birds are actually in the general area of Lemsford for most of the year, only leaving to breed for two or three months. Upon return, in late summer, they use other local sites such as gravel pits, only switching to the watercress beds in the autumn.

Individuals birds visit a suite of sites; by tracking birds wearing radio tags, the team were able to establish that even birds that fed at Lemsford Springs (below) during the daytime would roost communally at the local gravel pits overnight.

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Effects of cold weather

The research team found that the patterns of behaviour of the Hertfordshire Green Sandpipers varied with local weather conditions. During extremely cold weather in January and February the birds switched to roosting overnight at the watercress beds, where they could also feed. In these conditions, with the water frozen at gravel pits, roost sites were accessible to predators. Automated monitoring of tag locations showed that birds were active for around 80% of each daytime period at all times of year. Nocturnal activity varied from around 16% in autumn to over 40% in cold conditions in midwinter. This suggests that a low level of night time activity is normal in Green Sandpipers and that higher levels, found during extremely cold winter conditions, are the result of birds attempting to increase their daily food intake.

Annual survival

The return-rate of colour-ringed birds can be used as a surrogate for survival rates, bearing in mind that any bird that changes its wintering area will reduce the apparent survival rate, although still alive. (See WaderTales blog on measuring survival rates based on review paper in IBIS)

blog2 gravelOnce established in the Hertfordshire area, individual Green Sandpipers were likely to turn up in subsequent  winters, with little difference in return-rates between young birds, ringed in their first winter, and adults. There was considerable variation from year to year, with the return rates varying from 68.7 to 100%; the lowest being between 1986/87 and 1987/88, when another local winter site (Cole Green) became unsuitable. Birds using that site presumably went elsewhere or died. The average apparent annual survival rate was 83.5% (or 84.7% if account is taken of the disappearance of Cole Green). In the only other similar study, in northern Germany, the mean return rate was only 56%, with few birds returning in the year after a severe winter. In the Hertfordshire study, there is a correlation between the overall return rate of colour ringed birds from one winter to the next and the number of nights with air frost in the first winter (r = -0.86, n = 7, P < 0.05). These results suggest that birds suffer increased mortality in severe winters.

Territoriality

One of the interesting things that became apparent, once individuals could be identified using colour-rings, was that some of the Hertfordshire Green Sandpiper were highly territorial, with similar patterns of behaviour each year.

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When Green Sandpipers appear in late summer they are usually found in small flocks, which include the colour-ringed full-grown adults and young birds of the year. At some point in the autumn, possibly triggered by low temperature or shortening day-length, the behaviour suddenly changes, with some of the birds establishing defended territories on the lagoons, from which they chase all interlopers. This initial burst of territoriality has been captured in the excellent images above and below this paragraph. Once the territories are established they are maintained by subtle calling displays, with only occasional full-on disputes.

blog2 fight 1

During periods of very cold weather, additional birds arrived from other local sites and, for a short period in January 1984, the number of birds present on the reserve more than doubled (to a total of 16). The newly-arrived birds attempted to establish their own territories and devoted up to half of their time to boundary disputes, far in excess of that of the residents. When the weather conditions improved the additional birds left the reserve.

Territorial disputes

During the autumn and early winter of 1985, the research team attempted to investigate territoriality through activity watches of birds present on the lagoon at Lemsford. Every minute, each bird was scored as feeding, resting or disputing. Most watches were over at least one hour and all were completed during the period October to December. On the graph, the solid line and points are the counts of the numbers of birds, and the open symbols are the percentage of time that birds spent in dispute.

blog2 aggression graph

From early October, which corresponds to the end of the autumn moult, between 6 and 11 birds were present at Lemsford, feeding together as a group with little or no interaction. Around mid-October, the number of disputes started to increase. It varied in intensity from day to day but, over a few weeks, the numbers of birds present fell to four or five. These birds took ownership of exclusive territories that were largely maintained for the whole of the winter. Ken Smith was able to find all of the missing Green Sandpipers within 15 km of Lemsford. Some of these individuals would occasionally pop back to Lemsford, get involved in a fight and leave again. In extreme weather interlopers can spend the whole day trying to feed on the lagoons and being chased off.

Tom SpellerFrom observations at Lemsford, it appears that, once territories have been established, local birds are well aware of their boundaries and neighbours. Should a bird stray into a neighbouring bird’s patch, a low-key call is sufficient warning to avoid a disagreement. Ken reports that the big disputes, with chasing and out-and-out aggression, only occur when the territories are being established or when a new bird tries to feed in an established territory. During extremely cold weather, in the 1980s, there would be lots of extra birds attempting to feed in the spring-fed watercress beds, by trying to squeeze into perceived gaps between territories. Such cold conditions are very rare nowadays.

A changing climate

Over the three decades of the project, there has been a tendency for cold winter temperatures to become less frequent across Britain & Ireland. During this time, the distribution of Green Sandpipers has expanded northwards, as you can see in the figure below.

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The left-hand and central maps show the winter distributions of Green Sandpiper in the periods of the two winter atlases of 1981-84 and 2007-11, respectively. The surveys underpinning these maps were organised by the British Trust for Ornithology with BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club. The expansion of the range represents a 56% increase in occupied 10-km squares, with an obvious extension into Scotland and across northern England, where winter temperatures are colder. Data collected for Bird Atlas 2007-11 included measures of effort, enabling relative abundance to be quantified. In the right-hand map, darker squares represent areas with higher numbers of Green Sandpipers. The Lemsford site is marked with a star.

As, mentioned earlier, there is an indication that annual return rates to Lemsford (and in the German study) relate to the conditions birds experience in the winter period prior to departure for their breeding grounds. In Scotland and Northern England, where freezing conditions occur more frequently, it might be expected that survival rates will be lower than in southern England. For winter populations to establish themselves in new (colder) sites, young birds will need to spend their first winters in these areas and then return in subsequent years. Local population can potentially grow unless or until knocked back by a cold winter.

Where to in spring?

blog2 previous.jpgIn recent years, the research team have deployed harness-mounted geolocators to ascertain the movements of a small number of individuals during the course of a full annual cycle. Another WaderTales blog discusses migration and the effects of harnesses on the behaviour of individuals. See Green Sandpipers & Geolocators.

Summary and papers

This thirty-year study is an excellent example of what can be discovered through long-term observations of a small population of waders. You can read more about the Hertfordshire Green Sandpiper research in these papers (links in bold):

  • K W Smith, J M Reed & B E Trevis (1984) Studies of green sandpipers wintering in southern England. Wader Study Group Bull, 42.
  • K W Smith (1986) Green Sandpiper. In The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland, pp 222-223, Poyser, Carlton.
  • K W Smith, J M Reed & B E Trevis (1992) Habitat use and site fidelity of green sandpipers Tringa ochropus wintering in southern England. Bird Study, 39, 155-164.
  • Smith, K W, Reed, J M & Trevis, B E (1999) Nocturnal and diurnal activity patterns and roosting sites of Green Sandpipers Tringa ochropus wintering in southern England. Ringing & Migration, 19, 315-322.
  • Smith K W (2002) Green sandpiper in The Migration Atlas: movements of the birds of Britain and Ireland. Wernham C V, Toms M P, Marchant J H, Clark J A, Siriwardena G M & Baillie S R. (eds). T & A D Poyser, London.
  • Smith, K.W., Trevis, B.E. & Reed, M. (2018). The effects of leg-loop harnesses and geolocators on the diurnal activity patterns of Green Sandpipers Tringa ochropus in winter. Ringing & Migration 32: 104-109.

 


GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

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WaderTales blogs in 2018

RP no geolocatorThe amazing migrations of Ringed Plover, concerns about Spotted Redshank and lessons from Little Tern conservation …

just three of the highlights from WaderTales in 2018.

Seventeen new WaderTales blogs were published during the year, bringing the total so far to 65. There are three articles about Black-tailed Godwits (total now 16), two more focusing upon Icelandic research (total 8) and lots of new single-species and conservation-related tales to catch up on. The most widely-read blog is a review of global survival rates in waders and the least popular (so far) is one that looks at site fidelity in breeding Black-tailed Godwits.

morgan 2018Black-tailed Godwits

There are several WaderTales blogs about the expanding population of islandica  Black-tailed Godwits and the fast-disappearing limosa birds. This year, it was a pleasure to report on the success of ‘head-starting’ as a means of boosting the British breeding limosa population.

  • Just one Black-tailed Godwit tells one godwit’s life story for the three years after ringing, using observations by birdwatchers in four countries.
  • Site-fidelity in Black-tailed Godwits looks at how the head-starting programme to support the East Anglian population of limosa might be affected by philopatry.
  • Head-starting Success reports on the joint RSPB/WWT project to increase the Black-tailed Godwit breeding population in the Nene, Ouse & Welney fens.

blog whimbrelIceland-based research

The range of wader research in Iceland has expanded over the years and these blogs give a taster of the the breadth of the work.

blog stalkingSingle-species studies

This section is a bit of a miscellany. Each blog is focused on a particular species and is usually based on a scientific paper that highlights a broader issue of conservation importance.

  • Well-travelled Ringed Plovers from Chukotka in north-east Russia spend the winter in Somalia, Egypt, the Red Sea & the Persian Gulf.
  • Green Sandpipers and Geolocators summarises a Ringing & Migration paper about changing behaviour patterns in Green Sandpipers that wore geolocators.
  • Fewer Spotted Redshanks reviews migration patterns and changes in abundance of the species, in a British & Irish context.
  • Starting moult early focuses on the timing of moult in Golden Plover populations. It turns out that it’s tough to find a three-month period in which to moult.
  • Iceland to Africa, non-stop discusses the speed of migration of Icelandic Whimbrel in spring and autumn.

malpasIssues in wader/shorebird conservation and science

Waders across the globe are subject to huge pressures, with several species close to extinction. In some areas we are seeing reduced annual survival – which is a serious issue in species which were thought of as long-lived birds – and many populations are finding it hard to raise sufficient youngsters to sustain numbers.

  • Waders are long-lived birds! Some thoughts on the longevity records for BTO-ringed wader species and the value of monitoring survival.
  • Measuring shorebird survival is a global review that explores the geographic, seasonal and sex-based variation in survival rates across wader families.
  • Curlew Moon has at its heart a review of Mary Colwell’s book of the same name but also summarises some of the issues being faced by Curlew in Ireland and the UK.
  • Black-tailed Godwit and Curlew in France provides background to the debate about a hunting ban or moratorium in France.
  • Tool-kit for wader conservation provides an overview of the tools that are available to conservationists and site-managers working on wet grasslands.
  • Deterring birds of prey summarises a paper about Diversionary Feeding; one way to keep protected predators away from wader chicks.
  • Leg-flags and nest success investigates whether nesting success of small waders (shorebirds) is affected by wearing leg-flags.

Want to read more? To see a full list of the WaderTales blogs that have been published since 2015 CLICK HERE.

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GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

Designing wader landscapes

blog whimbrelMuch has been written about the negative impacts of agriculture on breeding birds – but farming can be good for some species. In Iceland, where high-input agriculture is relatively recent, breeding waders are commonly found in nutrient-rich environments that are associated with increased production. How can high breeding densities of waders be maintained, as farming continues to expand and intensification increases?

In her paper in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment Lilja Jóhannesdóttir investigates the distribution of breeding waders across landscapes with varying amounts of highly-cultivated fields and semi-natural areas. She discovers that, in some circumstances and at an appropriate level, adding cultivated land within a broader mosaic of habitats may benefit breeding waders. Is this a model system that provides clues as to how to design landscapes that can support sustainable breeding wader populations in other parts of the world?

The waders of Iceland

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Breeding populations of waders in Iceland (AEWA report)

Iceland is a hot-spot for breeding waders, holding half or more of Europe’s Dunlin, Golden Plover and Whimbrel, in a country that is a bit smaller then England. The paper at the heart of this blog is written by Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, who worked with colleagues from the University of Iceland, the Agricultural University of Iceland, the University of East Anglia (UK) and the University of Aveiro (Portugal). They investigated how different ways of increasing agricultural productivity might impact upon these species, and others such as Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Snipe.

Much of Iceland’s upland interior is not suitable as farmland but there is still plenty of room for agricultural expansion. Only 7% of the area between sea level and an elevation of 200 m is currently under cultivation but it is estimated that it would be possible to increase this to 63% – an eight-fold extensification. Icelandic lowlands currently comprise a fine-scale mosaic of open semi-natural habitats and cultivated fields (primarily for silage production to feed animals), making most of the landscape much more heterogeneous than in countries with a longer history of commercial farming.

blog hay and semi-naturalTwo previous WaderTales blogs have already shown that:

Given that farm production is predicted to increase, that farmers like breeding waders and that some intensively-managed fields can be attractive to waders, is it possible to design farmed landscapes that will work for birds and farmers?

Increasing inputs and reducing heterogeneity

blog nice wetlandGlobally, the expansion and intensification of agriculture has altered landscapes and the associated homogenisation has greatly influenced bird abundance and reduced biodiversity. Populations of numerous species, particularly specialist species, have declined, as agriculture has expanded, while generalist species have often thrived in agricultural habitats.

There is no shortage of examples in which highly intensively managed farmland is shown to be bad for breeding waders. In the monoculture hay-meadows of the Netherlands, Black-tailed Godwit productivity is really low, for instance. These fields have been drained, fertilised and re-sown, in order to create easily-managed carpets of single-species grass that can be cut several times a year. There is more about this in this paper by Roos Kentie.

blog hay fieldAlthough there are some areas of Iceland in which farming is quite intensive, there are many others where farmers have a lighter touch. For instance, nutrient-poor dwarf birch marshes may occasionally be grazed by sheep in the summer but these areas have never received applications of artificial fertiliser. At this end of the intensification continuum, increasing agricultural operations may have benefits for breeding waders. When a patch of rough grazing is ploughed and turned into a hay meadow, the addition of fertilisers can potentially increase soil fertility and create an attractive place for waders to feed. A hay meadow within a local area that is dominated by dwarf birch marsh could effectively increase the heterogeneity (& nutrient-richness via spill-over) of the local area, albeit in an artificial way. In the UK, Golden Plovers breeding on moorland are known to travel up to 7 km to feed on fertilised hayfields with high earthworm densities. This paper by James Pearce-Higgins & Derek Yalden in IBIS provides a nice example of how low intensity agriculture can provide resources for waders in the wider landscape.

Researching waders and landscapes

blog dbmLilja’s work in the Southern Lowlands of Iceland focused upon understanding how agriculture influences breeding wader densities and how these relationships might influence future change. At its heart were counts of adult waders encountered along 200 transects (totalling over 100 kilometres) within semi-natural habitats, visited at several stages during the breeding seasons of 2011 and 2012.

As well as counting birds, Lilja categorised habitats within 500, 1000, 1500 and 2500 metres of the transects, which she called buffer area in the paper. Interestingly, and usefully for later analyses, the distribution of different habitat types is pretty uniform across these scales, in this part of Iceland, with little substantial difference according to elevation. In the diagram below, the 200 transects (a) have been split between those below 50 m above sea level (b) and those higher than 50 m (c).

buffers

Landscape-scale effects

To fulfill the various demands of parents and their offspring, waders need diverse resources on or near their territory. An adult can feed a kilometre or more away from its nest, between incubation bouts, and chicks are mobile from an early age. Tagging has shown that young Black-tailed Godwits can move up to 3 km in the first five days of life, just to give one example. In this open landscape, breeding success is likely to be a function of habitat availability at a broad scale. This is explored in a WaderTales blog about nesting Whimbrel.

blog redshankUsing data collected from these 200 lowland transects, Lilja was able to establish relationships between breeding wader densities and the amount of cultivated land and wetland in the surrounding landscape. These two habitat types were considered because future agricultural expansion is likely to take place on drained wetlands that have high conservation value. In her analyses she assessed the extent to which the amount of cultivated land in the surrounding landscape affects wader densities on semi-natural land, and then considered the potential effects of future agricultural expansion on wader populations. There was substantial variation in the density of all of the six most common wader species recorded on the transects, ranging from 0 to 284 birds/km2.

Lilja found that wader densities in semi-natural habitats were consistently greater when the surrounding landscapes had more wetland, at scales ranging from 500 m to 2500 m, indicating the importance of wetland availability in the local neighbourhood. However, the effects of cultivated land in the surrounding landscape varied with fertility and landscape structure, which was largely defined by altitude.

  • In fertile, low-lying coastal areas (from sea-level to 100 m altitude), wader numbers declined with increasing amounts of cultivated land (and the lowest densities occurred in areas dominated by cultivation). This suggests that further conversion of semi-natural habitats into farmland is likely to severely impact waders in low-lying areas.
  • In less fertile habitats at higher altitudes (between 100 m and 200 m), the lowest densities occurred in areas without cultivated land. This suggests that additional resources provided by cultivated land may have a more positive affect in the less-fertile, higher altitude areas.

blog blackwitThe relationships between the areas of wetland and agriculture in the surrounding landscape and the density of waders vary between species, as you can read in some detail in the paper. A few highlights are:

  • With increasing area of cultivated land, densities of Golden Plover, Dunlin and Whimbrel declined significantly at lower altitudes but increased at higher altitudes. These are the three species that would appear to respond most positively to the addition of pockets of cultivated land within a semi-natural matrix of less fertile land, that tends to be found at higher elevations.
  • Higher amounts of wetland were associated with increased densities of Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit, but lower densities of Redshank. Golden Plover numbers were unaffected by amount of wetland in the surrounding landscape.
  • Whimbrel densities increased with wetland area, at higher altitudes. Wet patches have been shown to be very important to Whimbrel chicks, as you can read in this WaderTales blog about research in Shetland.
  • At lower altitudes, Snipe densities increased with the amount of wetland area in the local vicinity. This relationship was less pronounced at higher altitudes, which tend to be less effectively drained and hence generally wetter.

dunlin graphic

What now?

Changes in Icelandic landscapes are to be expected in the coming years, as most farmers intend to increase their areas of cultivated land. This expansion will inevitably have impacts upon the internationally important breeding wader populations of Iceland but the level of such impact will depend on where the expansion will occur. This paper shows that increases in the area of cultivated land at lower altitudes in Southern Iceland are more likely to result in declines in wader density than in less fertile areas, when tend to occur at slightly higher altitudes (still under 200 m above sea level). An important next step will be to identify the landscape structures and scales of management that can continue to support high densities of breeding waders.

blog coastal wetlandGiven the international importance of Iceland as a home for breeding waders it would be nice to think that this paper can be used to develop national land management policies that can prevent the unintended loss of species such as Golden Plover and Snipe, which landowners value and wish to preserve. At the farm and community level, the paper highlights the key importance of maintaining the complex and heterogeneous landscapes of lowland Iceland, retaining as many as possible of the remaining wetland patches and pockets of semi-natural land within even the most intensive of farming areas.

The paper may well be of interest to conservationists who are struggling to reverse wader declines in other parts of the world. In Southern Iceland, where 7% of the land is being farmed relatively intensively within a fine scale mosaic of both wet and dry semi-natural habitats, it is possible to support hundreds of waders per square km across the wider countryside. Can this situation be replicated across large tracts of land in other countries?

Take home message and paper

blog heterogeneousThis paper provides a useful reminder that the links between land use changes and biodiversity implications can be highly context-dependent. Further agricultural conversion of wetlands and rough grazing areas in the fertile low-lying areas of Iceland is likely to be detrimental for breeding waders, but such effects may be less apparent in less fertile, higher altitude areas. Here, the conversion of some land from rough-grazing to hay meadows may provide feeding opportunities off-territory for Dunlin, Golden Plover and Whimbrel. The scale at which the addition of cultivated areas is beneficial to breeding waders has yet to be determined.

This paper is published as:

Interacting effects of agriculture and landscape on breeding wader populations. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, Jennifer A. Gill, José A. Alves, Sigmundur H. Brink, Ólafur Arnalds, Verónica Méndez and Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2018.11.024

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GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

Iceland to Africa, non-stop

blog tagRinging had already suggested that Whimbrel might fly non-stop from Iceland to western Africa (see “Whimbrels on the move”). By using geolocators, Camilo Carneiro and his colleagues from the Universities of Iceland and Aveiro (Portugal) have now shown that this is the norm – and reveal just how quickly they get there.  In the paper reporting on this work, they contrast this rapid autumn movement with what happens on the return journey in spring.

Migratory journeys

European Whimbrel are made up of two distinct populations which mix in the wintering grounds. Three-quarters of the estimated total of 400,000 pairs breed in Iceland, with the rest breeding from Scandinavia through to Russia. In the autumn, most of the Icelandic birds fly straight to Africa. In the late summer and early autumn, the vast majority of birds seen in the UK and other European countries on the East-Atlantic Flyway are of continental (rather than Icelandic) origin. Most will continue their migrations to Africa.

Camilo Carneiro’s paper focuses on the Icelandic population. Although the breeding locations of the birds in the study all fell within a circle of radius 5 km, the wintering area represents about 1500 km of the coastal strip of western Africa and its off-shore islands. This includes Sierra Leone, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, The Gambia, Mauritania and Morocco, with the highest density of the locations in Guinea-Conakry and Guinea-Bissau. On spring migration, although some manage a similar non-stop flight, most birds stopped off on their way back to Iceland. The largest number paused in Ireland, with others visiting western Britain, northwest France and Portugal. Marked birds flew an average of 6079 km in autumn and 6450 km in spring.

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A sense of urgency

Most studies show that birds migrate faster in spring than in autumn, something that may be associated with a need to get to breeding sites as quickly as possible. Potentially, this enables them to take advantage of the short window in which to find a partner, lay and hatch eggs, look after chicks and fatten up for the return journey. Why is autumn migration quicker for Whimbrel that breed in Iceland and spend the winter in countries such as Guinea-Bissau?

blog tag postCamilo Carneiro and his colleagues have been studying the migrations of individual Whimbrels using geolocators. These small devices, attached to leg-rings, record the times of dawn and dusk for twelve months. When (or if!) an individual can be caught again in the subsequent breeding season, the geolocator can be removed and the data down-loaded, revealing a year’s worth of movements. One of the fascinating things about this study is that there are 56 migrations from 19 individuals; meaning that there are several birds for which repeat information has been collected. There’s a WaderTales blog about geolocators here (Are there costs to wearing a geolocator?)

The tags used on these Whimbrels did not just measure light levels, they also recorded temperature and whether the tag was wet or dry. These extra data helped to establish more precisely the periods in which birds were on migration, as air temperature is lower at higher altitudes and tags can only record wetness if birds are standing in water. Please see the paper and supporting materials for details of the methodology. Given that birds cannot fly without fuel, account is taken of the time taken to fatten up for migration, when estimating the whole migratory period.

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Wintering Whimbrel in Guinea-Bissau

Results

The paper by Camilo Carneiro in the Journal of Avian Biology provides details about the wintering and staging location of Icelandic Whimbrel but the main focus is on speed of migration. This was calculated as the ground distance travelled divided by migration duration, where this period includes fuelling time.

  • blog flightAll birds flew directly from Iceland to the wintering sites (30 autumn migrations from 19 individuals), a journey of four or five days.
  • Males departed earlier than females in spring and made a stopover in 83% of the cases (15 out of 18 individuals), while females stopped on 75% occasions (6 out of 8).
  • Migration duration (fuelling plus flight times combined) was significantly different between seasons, being 59.2 ± 6 days in autumn and 65.5 ± 6.2 days in spring, with no apparent differences between sexes.
  • Migration speed and ground speed were higher in autumn than in spring (migration speed: 102.6 ± 2.2 kmd-1 in autumn and 98.6 ± 5.3 kmd-1 in spring; ground speed: 16.50 ± 5.99 ms-1 in autumn and 13.07 ± 5.82 ms-1 in spring), with no differences between sexes.
blog tag in grass

Catching an individual Whimbrel, in order to remove its geolocator, becomes harder every year. A range of methods is used to catch birds on their nests.

With only a small sample, the following reported results were not statistically significant:

  • On average, males departed later than females on autumn migration. This makes sense, as males stay with their chicks longer than females.
  • In spring, males arrived into Iceland on average 2 days before females.

Explaining the patterns

The discussion section of the paper provides a fascinating review of some of the theories relating to migration physiology – it’s well worth a read. This is just a quick summary.

Autumn migration seems relatively straightforward; every tracked Whimbrel took a direct flight from Iceland to Africa. For Whimbrel migrating to Iceland from western Africa in spring, however, there seems to be a relatively small chance of being able to fly all the way in one hop (5 out of 26 northward flights were direct). The authors suggest that:

  • blog mangrove

    Whimbrel roosting in the top of mangroves at high tide

    When leaving Iceland at the end of the summer, Whimbrel are heading towards predictable resources which will be similar from week to week. Timing of departure is not critical and birds may be able to wait for helpful weather patterns.

  • On the journey south, wind conditions are generally more favourable than on the journey north, reducing the duration of direct flight.
  • Some birds may have sufficient resources for the northward flight, if weather conditions are helpful, but choose to stop off in western Europe (particularly Ireland) if the fuel gauge suggests that they might not be able to complete the crossing.
  • It is possible that the relatively recent addition of West African Bloody Cockles to the Whimbrel’s diet, in the Banc d’Arguin, may have improved the species’ capacity to fatten up quickly, increasing the possibility of a one-flight trip north.
  • Staging areas in western Europe, particularly Ireland, may provide relatively predictable resources that can be used to top-up reserves for the final 1500 km crossing of the Atlantic in spring. By using a stop-over, it may be possible to take on extra reserves that can be used in the early part of the breeding season.
  • There may be a stronger link between weather patterns in western Europe and Iceland than between western Africa and Iceland. Whimbrel that stop off in Ireland, or other countries on the Atlantic seaboard, may then depart in weather systems that are also associated with warmers spring conditions in Iceland.

blog no ringThere are many questions still to be answered but one thing is certain; as it says in the title of the paper, when the migration of the Icelandic Whimbrel is studied in detail, it is clear that there is faster migration in autumn than in spring. Here’s a link to the paper:

Faster migration in autumn than in spring: seasonal migration patterns and non‐breeding distribution of Icelandic Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus islandicus Camilo Carneiro, Tómas G. Gunnarsson & José A. Alves Journal of Avian Biology 10.1111/jav.01938

More about migration

Migrating birds make ‘decisions’ on timing and staging each year that can affect their personal survival and the chance of successfully raising young. Are these ‘strategies’ just the consequences of the circumstances that arise in a particular season? As scientists gather longer runs of tracking data on individuals, and can relate these to wind and weather patterns, it may be possible to gain a better understanding of the drivers of migratory patterns.

The team behind this paper (Camilo Carneiro, Tómas Gunnarsson & José Alves) have produced a number of complementary papers on wader migration, some of which have been covered in previous blogs:

WaderTales: Overtaking on Migration.  Alves, J. A., Gunnarsson, T. G., Potts, P. M., Gélinaud, G., Sutherland, W. J. and Gill, J. A. 2012. Overtaking on migration: does longer distance migration always incur a penalty? – Oikos 121: 464–470.

IBIS/BOU: Risking it all in a direct flight.  Alves, J. A., Dias, M. P., Méndez, V., Katrínardóttir, B. and Gunnarsson, T. G. 2016. Very rapid long-distance sea crossing by a migratory bird. – Sci. Rep. 6: 38154.

Gunnarsson, T. G. and Tómasson, G. 2011. Flexibility in spring arrival of migratory birds at northern latitudes under rapid temperature changes. – Bird Study 58: 1–12.

WaderTales: Whimbrels on the move.  Gunnarsson, T. G. and Guðmundsson, G. A. 2016. Migration and non-breeding distribution of Icelandic Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus islandicus as revealed by ringing recoveries. – Wader Study 123: 44–48.

WaderTales: Black-tailed Godwit pairs – the importance of synchrony.  Gunnarsson, T. G., Gill, J. A., Sigurbjornsson, T. and Sutherland, W. J. 2004. Arrival synchrony in migratory birds. – Nature 413: 646.

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The southern lowlands of Iceland (breeding grounds of Whimbrel) seen from Þríhyrningur

 


GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

 

 

Leg-flags and nest success

For ornithologists studying birds by adding colour-rings, flags and tracking devices, a question of fundamental importance is always “am I affecting the birds’ survival or behaviour by requiring them to carry these markers?” This is not just a welfare issue; if marking birds affects the way that birds behave or changes their chance of survival then any findings are dubious. In a paper in Journal of Field Ornithology, Emily Weiser explores whether leg flags influence the nesting success of four species of small wader (shorebird).

Using leg-flags

Western Emily

Western Sandpiper

Rings rarely have any negative effects on birds and are frequently used to mark individuals. Leg flags are bigger and easier to see, and there is space to add letters/numbers, but they are also bulkier and heavier. Might there be a consequence of flag-wearing for the nesting success or survival of individuals? By analysing nesting-success data collected at seven sites in Arctic Alaska and western Canada, Emily Weiser and colleagues were able to check for flag effects on four species of Arctic-breeding shorebird: Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers and Red-necked and Grey (Red) Phalaropes. The study involved measuring daily survival rates for nearly 2000 nests – which is a huge sample size. The amount of work involved is reflected in the fact that the Weiser paper has 24 authors!

flagged in handA flag is a plastic strip shaped to wrap around a bird’s leg. It is like a colour-ring but with a tab that extends from the leg, increasing its conspicuousness and providing an opportunity to inscribe a letter/number code. The probability of generating individual sightings can be increased but at what costs? Might flags make nesting birds more obvious to predators? Could the bulkier flag damage the eggs? Might the flag affect incubation efficiency? Whilst it was not possible to answer each of these questions separately, the total effect could be measured by checking to see if nest survival was different for birds wearing flags, as opposed to rings.

Findings

nesting RNP

Male Red-necked Phalarope

Between 205 and 780 nests of the four species of Arctic-breeding shorebirds were included in the study, with between 36% and 82% of these nests having at least one adult with a leg flag in attendance. For the two sandpipers (Western and Semipalmated), the sample included nests with two flagged parents, about half as many where only one parent had a flag and others where parents wore colour-rings (bands), rather than flags. Female phalaropes do not brood their eggs so, for Red-necked and Grey (Red) Phalaropes, nests were categorised by whether males wore flags, or just colour-rings. Several different analyses were carried out, to take account of the number of flagged parents, year effects etc., as you can read in the paper, but there is one key result; there is no evidence that leg flags affect the daily survival rate (DSR) of the nests for any of the four species, or the probability that a nest is successful (see figure).

graphic

Across the whole incubation period, the proportion of nests expected to hatch did not differ between nests with or without flagged adults. There was variation between species, with the estimated probability of eggs hatching varying from 70% for Western Sandpiper to 91% for Grey (Red) Phalarope. These figures are higher than reported previously because the analysis was only for nests where at least one bird was captured. Early failures were therefore excluded. Overall nest success rates are reported in this paper.

A mix of species

Banded RNP

Colour-ringed Red-necked Phalarope

This study focused on four small species of wader, from Semipalmated Sandpiper (26g) to Grey (Red) Phalarope (49g), in which any effects of (relatively large) flags on breeding success might be expected to be higher than for larger species of wader. The results are very similar, despite the fact that sandpipers and phalaropes differ in two potentially important ways:

  • The species behave very differently, using very different feeding methods – phalaropes feed mainly on water, while the two sandpipers feed on land and at the land-water interface
  • In sandpipers, both parents attend the nest but in phalaropes only one parent (the male) attends the nest.

Could flags have other effects?

Semi Emily

Flagged Semipalmated Sandpiper

Nothing in the data analysed for this paper suggests that flags are affecting survival rates of marked birds during the period when birds are breeding. The authors suggest that it would be useful to undertake further analyses to check:

  • Nest survival rates for a broader range of species and in different habitats (where, for instance, predators might behave differently).
  • Growth rates of chicks wearing flags and of chicks being cared for by parents wearing flags.
  • Annual survival rates of adults and chicks that wear flags.

Emily Weiser has also written a review of the effects of leg-mounted geolocators on waders/shorebirds. Here she found that there could be problems in a small number of circumstances. This important paper is summarised in this blog: Are there costs to wearing geolocators?

Another WaderTales blog examines the preening and feeding behaviour of Green Sandpipers that wear geolocators attached to harnesses.

More in the paper

Emily in field

Emily Weiser in the field

Any researchers who wish to investigate the effects of marking birds will find it useful to read the whole paper, for details of methods and analyses. There is also a long list of references relating to the effects of marking birds. Information about the particular types of flags used in these studies may also be  helpful.

Effects of leg flags on nest survival of four species of Arctic-breeding shorebirds: Emily L. Weiser, Richard B. Lanctot, Stephen C. Brown, H. River Gates, Rebecca L. Bentzen, Megan L. Boldenow, Jenny A. Cunningham, Andrew Doll, Tyrone F. Donnelly, Willow B. English, Samantha E. Franks, Kirsten Grond, Patrick Herzog, Brooke L. Hill, Steve Kendall, Eunbi Kwon, David B. Lank, Joseph R. Liebezeit, Jennie Rausch, Sarah T. Saalfeld, Audrey R. Taylor, David J. Ward, Paul F. Woodard and Brett K. Sandercock Field Ornithol. 89(3):287–297, 2018 DOI: 10.1111/jofo.12264

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GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

Starting moult early

In waders (shorebirds), the main moult (molt) usually takes place after the migration that follows the breeding season. Golden Plovers adopt a different strategy, starting wing moult while still nesting. Given that these adult birds are not going to fly anywhere any time soon, this seems like a very efficient strategy. So, why do Icelandic and Scandinavian Golden Plovers moult differently? Is this a reflection of available resources?

The post-breeding moult

MOULT CYCLEMoult is an energetic process, especially the post-breeding moult, which includes a change of all of the wing and tail feathers. To complete the whole process, birds ideally need to find a three-month period when resources are good, climatic conditions are benign and there is no need to migrate. For birds on the East Atlantic Flyway that spend the non-breeding season in Europe, moult typically takes place after the breeding season and before days get shorter and the weather gets colder.

One place with plenty of food-rich mud is the Wash, in eastern England. Here, up to 300,000 waders gather each autumn, including Knot from Greenland and Canada, Grey Plover from Siberia and Curlew from countries such as Finland. A relatively small proportion are juveniles, which will only moult their body feathers, but there are probably at least 200,000 waders in full moult at this time of year – dropping and growing a grand total of perhaps a billion feathers between them. Some populations use the Wash as a feeding station, before moving on to moult in their wintering grounds, but this is a minority. This group includes taymyrensis Bar-tailed Godwits (more about these birds here) and schinzii Dunlin, which will travel further south, to Africa.

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Golden Plovers start their moult during or before the incubation period

There are Golden Plovers spread across the autumn mud-flats of the Wash too, made up of a mixture of birds that have bred in Britain, Europe, Scandinavia and Iceland. Although they end up in the same winter flocks, their moult strategies are different. Recent research by Paula Machín and colleagues has focused upon how breeding season conditions impact upon the moult strategy of two distinct Golden Plover populations, birds breeding in Scandinavia and Northern Russia and others breeding in Iceland. The resulting paper is published in the Journal of Avian Biology.

Conditions at the breeding grounds and migration strategy shape different moult patterns of two populations of Eurasian golden plover Pluvialis apricaria Paula Machín, Magdalena Remisiewicz, Juan Fernández-Elipe, Joop Jukema & Raymond H.G. Klaassen

Icelandic Golden Plovers

scopeUp to one million Golden Plovers arrive in Iceland each spring, mainly from Ireland and western parts of the United Kingdom. This is estimated to be nearly half of the European breeding population. Iceland might seem small, when compared to the vast land-mass of the European continent, but it’s a haven for waders. This status is threatened by the spread and intensification of lowland farming, increased afforestation and by the ‘summer cottage’ industry – but those are stories for another day.

eggsThe Heiðlóa (Golden Plover) is a welcome sight and sound at the end of the Icelandic winter. The first migrants appear about 23 March and nesting can commence as early as 26 April. The usual clutch size is four eggs, with both parents sharing incubation duties. Some first nests are lost, due to predation, but females can lay another clutch. Joop Jukema studied Golden Plovers nesting near Selfoss in the Southern Lowlands of Iceland, timing his captures of nesting birds to coincide with the later part of the incubation period. He was able to assess the progress of moult by scoring the growth of the primary feathers and to work out when each bird would have dropped its first primary. The estimated mean start date of primary moult for males was 19 May (95% confidence interval 27 April – 10 June) with females starting an average of 9 days later, on 28 May (95% confidence interval 6 May – 19 June). On average, males started to moult their primary feathers nine days before the start of incubation, while females started to moult at the same time as incubation began. Potentially, hormone changes associated with the stage of the breeding season could be linked to the onset of moult.

moult graphic

Icelandic Golden Plovers complete their moult prior to departure from the country. By making catches of birds in late August and early September, it was possible to show that the primary moult period is about 100 days. No birds were caught in suspended moult, strongly suggesting that Icelandic Golden Plovers do not attempt to cross the Atlantic before they have attained a complete, fresh set of feathers.

Swedish Golden Plovers

Paula Machín’s main study site was in Ammarnäs in Sweden, on roughly the same latitude as Selfoss and hence with the same amount of daylight. Ammarnäs is colder in spring than Selfoss, not benefiting from the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream which wash the shores of southern Iceland. The average start of incubation in Ammarnäs was eight days later than in Selfoss with the commencement of moult being seventeen days later. Males started primary moult three days after the start of incubation, with females starting twelve days into incubation. It is interesting to note that the difference in timing of the two sexes is nine days, just as in Iceland.

chickFemale Golden Plovers left the Ammarnäs breeding territories at the end of July. From observations of females caught on their nests, it seemed likely that individual females were not starting the moult of their outer primaries, typically completing the moult of primary four and not dropping primary five. Males stayed with chicks for an extra fortnight. Given the longer period of time available to males, it is likely that they were able to moult more primary feathers than their partners, prior to departure from the area.

Catching birds during the chick-guarding phase or just before migration is very difficult but Raymond Klasssen and colleagues were able to study birds on similar strategies by catching birds at Lund, in southern Sweden, and in the Netherlands. Here, birds from Swedish breeding areas and further afield gather to moult, recommencing primary moult at the point at which it had been suspended. Inspecting moulting birds in the period August through to November enabled the research team to monitor the second part of the moult of Continental birds. Given that the distance between breeding areas and these staging areas is relatively short and that tracking showed that it could be completed in one or two days, it is possible that adults might be able to migrate while in active moult.

Spot the difference

measuringOverlapping the breeding and moulting period is rare in migratory birds but it makes sense in a time-constrained annual cycle. The research team suggest that Icelandic plovers presumably need to initiate moult early in the season, in order to be able to complete it at the breeding grounds. This is not an option for Continental plovers, as their breeding season is much shorter, due to a harsher climate and an earlier drop-off in the number of arthropods, their main food source. These Golden Plovers cannot delay the start of the moult period until after the autumn migration because there is insufficient time to compete a full moult in areas such as Lund or the Netherlands, prior to the onset of winter frosts. The fact that Golden Plover are largely associated with farmland, rather than estuarine sites, may make them more susceptible to sub-zero temperatures than, for instance Grey Plover.

When incubating and looking after chicks, Icelandic and Swedish Golden Plovers were able to moult at the same rate. However, there were differences in the second part of the primary moult season. Away from their territories, Icelandic birds continued to moult at the same rate as previously but, having moved to Lund or the Netherlands, Continental birds could moult twice as fast as before. The availability of earthworms in these staging areas may make it easier to acquire resources for the energetically-expensive moult process.

TGG flying

Despite the faster rate of moult of Continental birds in the later period of their moult, the total period of primary moult is longer than that of Icelandic birds. Birds completing their moult in Iceland took an average of 100 days to replace their primaries, whilst Swedish-breeding birds took 16 days longer. This difference may be associated with the time taken to complete the first stage of moult, prior to the migratory flight away from the breeding sites.

alarmA key finding of this paper is that splitting the moult period extends the total period of primary moult. For Swedish breeders, this is the best option, however, as there is insufficient time to complete autumn moult close to the breeding grounds or after the breeding season. As the authors conclude, “Meeting the energy demands of breeding, moult, and migration calls for different timing and spacing of these events in their annual cycle, adjusted to conditions at their breeding and stopover sites, and to their migration strategy.”

There’s more from Paula Machín and her colleagues on this blog-site: https://overthetreeline.wordpress.com/

More moult

There are more WaderTales blogs about moult: 

  • The not-so Grey Plover includes general information about wader moult and talks about some of the stresses that may occur.
  • Lapwings can moult while on migration. Read more in Lapwing Moult, which also talks about how to study moult without catching birds.
  • Bar-tailed Godwit; migration and survival mentions the different strategies of two subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit, both of which can be found on the Wash in autumn.

I look forward to future papers about moult strategies to add to WaderTales. Here’s a list of the 60+ blogs that are already available: https://wadertales.wordpress.com/about/

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GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

 

Deterring birds of prey

What conservation solutions are available if a protected bird of prey is feeding on the chicks of red-listed colonial or semi-colonial waders/shorebirds? A new paper (which actually focuses on amber-listed Little Terns) may well be of interest to conservation practitioners and research ecologists.

Threats to young chicks

blog Tern and KestrelPredation can limit bird populations, especially in ground-nesting and colonial species. In the UK, non-native mink can be trapped, foxes can be shot and badgers can be kept away using fences – but what can you do if a Kestrel is eating your Little Tern chicks? That’s the subject of a new paper by Dr Jen Smart (RSPB) and Dr Arjun Amar (RSPB & Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town).

Diversionary Feeding

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Christened ‘Morticia’, this female Kestrel acquired a taste for Little Tern chicks

One potential solution in a predator/prey conflict situation is to use Diversionary Feeding – providing prey items that are easier to collect than wader or tern chicks. In their paper in the Journal for Nature Conservation, Jen Smart and Arjun Amar test the efficacy of this solution. In this example, the prey items were Little Tern chicks and the predators were a small number of nesting Kestrels but the same situation could arise on a beach with nesting Ringed Plover, on an island with nesting Avocets or on a wet grassland with semi-colonial Lapwings.

Over a seventeen-year period, teams of RSPB staff and volunteers have been trying to help Little Terns nesting in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. It’s an internationally important colony of up to 369 pairs, which is equivalent to about a quarter of the UK population. It is also close to a local conurbation, with generalist predators such as foxes, cats, crows and gulls, on a beach that is a favourite with dog-walkers.

blog colonyElectric fences and friendly wardens can keep most people and animals away but birds are still a problem, especially a small number of Kestrels that have learnt that the tern colony is a great feeding area. In six of the 17 years, feeding stations were set up close to Kestrel nests, to try to reduce the impact of Kestrels on the Little Terns. In four years (two with Diversionary Feeding and two without) there was intensive monitoring of the Kestrels’ feeding behaviour, to ascertain how their diet changed when alternative food was supplied.

Does Diversionary Feeding work?

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Poultry chick being delivered

In the Great Yarmouth Little Tern colony, predation by Kestrels has been a serious issue. Over the whole 17-year study period, at least 3436 Little Tern chicks were taken by Kestrels and, to put this in context, only 2536 chicks fledged.

In the face of this challenging situation, providing food very close to the nest sites of individual Kestrels that were known to focus their attention on the Little Tern colony has been remarkably successful.

The key results from the paper are:

  • Predation levels were 47% lower and productivity of Little Terns almost doubled in years when Kestrels were fed.
  • During the four years of intensive monitoring, predation rates were eight times as high when diversionary feeding was not employed. This equates to 9.1 Little Tern chicks per day, as opposed to 1.1 chicks per day.
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    Wild prey – a vole this time

    Providing alternative prey, in the form of surplus day-old poultry chicks and laboratory mice, not only reduced the impact on Little Terns; it reduced predation of other local wildlife. By observing the prey that was delivered to the nest, over the course of four breeding seasons, the research team found that 3.4 times as many items of wild prey were presented to Kestrel chicks in the two years when alternative food was not provided, compared to the years with Diversionary Feeding.

  • blog Tern chick

    Little Tern chick

    The researchers note that, by counting prey items provided to Kestrel chicks, they are ignoring the tern chicks that will have been consumed by adults. They suggest that young tern chicks were treated as ‘snacks’ for adults, possibly because they were too small to be worth transporting back to the nest. They estimate that 20% of the artificial food supplied to the Kestrels may have been eaten by the adults.

  • The cost of supplying food to the Kestrels was between £100 and £200 per nest. The cost of employing a research assistant to find, feed and monitor nests was £12,000. Now, having proved that Diversionary Feeding works, it would be possible to significantly reduce staff time, because the intensive monitoring undertaken as part of this study would only be necessary for a short time, to ensure any fed kestrels were responding positively to the food provided.
  • blog graphThere is a large amount of detail in the paper about the specifics of Diversionary Feeding in this situation. Supplementary materials provide details about the timing of predation events across the day and information about how much food per day was supplied to the Kestrels, over the course of the breeding season.

A growing problem?

As the number of breeding birds in the wider countryside has declined, hot-spots such as nature reserves have attracted the attention of predators. Providing increased areas of suitable habitat for species such as Marsh Harriers and Bitterns, reintroducing species (e.g. Red Kite) and providing nest sites (e.g. Peregrine) in areas that are close to key sites for colonial and semi-colonial waders (and terns) may well mean that we see more conflicts between pairs of avian predator and prey species, both parties of which are of conservation concern. In some cases, as for the Norfolk Kestrels, a small number of individuals learn to target areas in which there are high concentrations of young birds.

blog avocet kestrelThe authors point out that different predator-prey interactions may well require different conservation solutions. In the case of Kestrels, the adults were well able to dissuade scavengers from approaching the feeding sites, which were located close to their nests. In other situations, feeding sites could themselves attract predators, scavengers and vermin, especially if food supply is not regulated carefully. Any Diversionary Feeding measures will need to be thoughtfully monitored to check for unintended consequences.

blog red kiteDiversionary Feeding may well be an important tool to use in specific circumstances; it’s already used by the RSPB to deter Red Kites preying on Lapwings at a nature reserve in Oxfordshire, for instance. Conservation practitioners and research scientists will find it useful to read the whole paper. If Diversionary Feeding is employed, then it seems sensible to develop protocols to test whether it works in different predator-prey systems and to report back on the outcomes.

Paper

This work is published as: Diversionary feeding as a means of reducing raptor predation at seabird breeding colonies Jennifer Smart and Arjun Amar, Journal for Nature Conservation, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2018.09.003

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GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

 

Tool-kit for wader conservation

andyhayDecades of drainage and agricultural intensification have caused huge declines in numbers of breeding waders in the lowland wet-grasslands of Western Europe. Although we were already well aware of these problems by 1995, and farmland prescriptions have been used to try to arrest the declines since then, we have still lost nearly half of Britain’s breeding Lapwing in the last twenty years. Even on nature reserves and in sympathetically-managed wet-grassland, it has proved hard to boost the number of chicks produced. Why is this and what else is there that can be done?

bouThis is a summary of a presentation by Professor Jennifer Gill of the University of East Anglia and Dr Jen Smart of RSPB, delivered at the BOU’s Grassland Workshop (IOC Vancouver, 2018).

There are five key techniques in the tool-kit used by conservationists trying to support breeding waders:

  • Make the site attractive to waders
  • Manage predator numbers, particularly through lethal control
  • Manage habitat structure to make alternative prey available
  • Exclude predators, either permanently or temporarily
  • Invest in head-starting chicks, to boost productivity

Size of the problem

redshankThe decline in wader numbers in England has been happening for a very long time. In just the period 1995-2016, Lapwing numbers have fallen by a further 26% and Redshank numbers by 39%, according to Bird Trends, produced by BTO & JNCC. Within the English lowlands there has been a dramatic contraction into nature reserves, especially in the east of England.

The Breeding Waders in Wet Meadows survey showed that fields that are within nature reserves are much more likely to be occupied than other fields in wet grassland, particularly those that are included in wader-specific agri-environment schemes. The study is published in Ibis by Jen Smart et al.

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Attracting breeding waders

Lowland wet grasslands in Broads

Creating shallow ditches. Mike Page/RSPB

Reserve managers and sympathetic landowners have become very good at creating the sort of habitats that attract breeding Lapwings. Autumn and winter grazing can be manipulated to produce short swards, whilst adding in shallow pools and foot-drains (linear features running through fields) increases feeding opportunities for chicks. See Restoration of wet features for breeding waders on lowland grassland 

The RSPB has invested heavily in time and equipment to deliver these lowland west grasslands, on their own land, on other nature reserves and on commercial farmland. By working with Natural England, they have helped to shape agri-environment schemes that can be used to deliver payments to farmers who are well-placed to create habitat that suits breeding waders.

Mark

wader pairsIn the east of England, there are now more than 3000 hectares of this attractive, well-managed wet grassland habitat, designed to be just right for species such as Lapwing. The graph alongside, drawn using RSPB data, shows the number of pairs of Lapwing (green), Redshank (red) and other waders (Oystercatcher, Avocet & Snipe: blue) in Berney Marshes RSPB reserve in eastern England for the period 1986 to 2016. There were early successes, as new areas were purchased and transformed, but growth in wader populations has not been sustained, despite ongoing improvements in land management. What is preventing further recovery?

Demographic processes

survivalIn a paper in the Journal of Ornithology, Maya Roodbergen et al  used demographic data collated across Europe to show that there had been long-term declines in nest survival and increases in nest predation rates in lowland wader species. One of the main focuses of management action at Berney Marshes is to maximise Lapwing productivity but nesting success is still below 0.6 chicks per pair in most years (see graph), which is the minimum estimated productivity for population stability (Macdonald & Bolton). Not enough chicks are being hatched, with the vast majority of egg losses being associated with fox activity.

Controlling foxes

The obvious solution for breeding waders must surely be to shoot foxes? It’s not that simple. In a multi-year, replicated experiment to assess the impact of controlling foxes and crows, RSPB scientists showed that there were no clear improvements in wader nesting success; effectiveness is very much site-specific. Much may well depend on how much fox control there is in the surrounding area.

foxIf fox impacts cannot be reduced sufficiently through lethal control, perhaps it is possible to reduce their effects on waders by understanding the ways in which foxes forage and to adapt the habitat appropriately? Work by Becky Laidlaw and others has shown that Lapwing nest predation rates are lower close to tall vegetation and in areas with complex wet features. However, Becky has also shown that management to create these features, even in areas of high wader density and effective predator mobbing, is only likely to achieve small reductions in nest predation. There is a WaderTales blog about this: Can habitat management rescue Lapwing populations?

Excluding foxes

malpasOne solution to the fox problem that does work is to exclude foxes (and badgers) from an area, by using electric fences. See paper by Lucy Malpas (now Lucy Mason). Fences may be deployed at different scales; just around individual nests, temporarily (around individual fields) or permanently (around larger areas).

  1. Nest-scale may be most appropriate for species such as Curlew, which have large territories and do not nest colonially. Finding nests is time consuming but relatively small lengths of fence could potentially be erected during the incubation period.
  2. Whole-site protection will suit semi-colonial species such as Lapwing. Although expensive to install, permanent fences can require relatively little maintenance and can potentially be powered by mains electricity. One disadvantage may be that the presence of large numbers of chicks can attract avian predators, such as birds of prey, which are themselves conservation priorities and hence difficult to manage.
  3. fence 2Field-scale fences usually rely on batteries, which need to be checked and changed, and fences need maintenance, as the grass grows and can short out the bottom strands. However, deployment at the field-level allows for dynamic use within a farming landscape and in accordance with agri-environment schemes. New research by RSPB and the University of East Anglia aims to see if fences need only to be deployed for relatively short periods. If pairs nest synchronously then groups of birds may be able to maintain the ‘fence-effect’ by mobbing predators, when a temporary fence is removed.

Head-starting

morgan 2018Although it might be possible to improve the habitat that is available for breeding waders and to reduce predation pressure, it is sometimes too late to boost numbers – simply because populations have shrunk to too low a level. At this point, head-starting (rearing chicks from eggs) may be appropriate. This blog celebrates the success of the first year of a joint initiative by RSPB and WWT (Project Godwit) to increase the local population of Black-tailed Godwits in the East Anglian fens: Head-starting Success.

In conclusion

In trying to boost breeding wader populations, land-managers and conservationists have developed techniques to increase site attractiveness and reduce predator impacts, through management, control and exclusion. The tools that are used will depend upon species, budget and conservation priorities.

This work was presented by Jennifer Gill & Jen Smart at a BOU symposium on the Conservation of Grassland Birds, in Vancouver, August 2018.

Blog adultWaderTales blogs about Lapwings and Redshanks

The work of RSPB and University of East Anglia scientists features strongly in these blogs, which focus on support for breeding wader populations in lowland wet grassland and on coastal saltings.


GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton (@grahamfappleton), who  has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

 

Head-starting success

The first year of head-started Black-tailed Godwits

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Head-started bird from 2017

As I write this, the Scientific & Technical Advisory Group of Project Godwit is meeting to review progress. They will be learning about the success of the project, which has three aims: to create the best possible habitat for the small (and threatened) population of Limosa Black-tailed Godwits breeding in the East Anglian washes, to provide protection for nesting pairs and to augment chick-production using head-starting. Head-starting involves removing first clutches and hand-rearing chicks before releasing them back to the wild. All of this is set within a rigorous scientific framework, so that the efficacy of head-starting and nest-protection can be carefully evaluated.

Success!

What a year it has been! When I wrote Special Black-tailed Godwits last year, I finished by saying, “Imagine how exciting it will be if one of this year’s head-started birds is found breeding in the Nene or Ouse Washes next year”. Amazingly, nine of the 26 head-started birds from 2017 were back this year and two females definitely had nests, with one fledging a chick, and a further two paired together are suspected to have attempted to nest. From data shared with me by Roos Kentie, this return-rate is comparable to wild-breeding Limosa Black-tailed Godwits in her Dutch study-area.

Earith 2

Where did the chicks go?

The left-hand map below shows the finding locations of chicks in the period June to September 2017, before they headed south for the winter. There had been a major publicity campaign, asking birdwatchers to look out for these special godwits in East Anglia. The Project Godwit team were pleased to receive news of six birds in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. The bird that turned up at Steart Marshes, in Somerset, came as more of a surprise.

headstarted map

Most limosa Black-tailed Godwits spend the winter in Africa, south of the Sahara, but an increasing number now stay in Portugal and Spain. There is a WaderTales blog about some of the costs and benefits of this new strategy: Should Black-tailed Godwits cross the Sahara? There were no winter sightings of the head-started birds but several popped up again in the spring of 2018, as shown in the right-hand map above. Four birds were seen in Portugal, two in France and one in Belgium. The Belgian sighting was the only unexpected sighting, as discussed in Site-fidelity in Black-tailed Godwits.

What about ‘wild’ birds?

wild mapRSPB scientists have been using colour-rings to follow the movements of Nene and Ouse Washes Black-tailed Godwits since 1999. As you can see, from the map alongside, the pattern of sightings is very similar to the one for the head-started birds, the only difference being a couple of winter reports in Senegal of the same individual and a bird that spends each winter in Portugal. August and September sightings have been in East Anglia, Spain and Portugal, with February and March sightings in Portugal, Spain, France and East Anglia.

As Black-tailed Godwits move north in February and March, they mix with birds of the islandica race which are preparing for the journey to Iceland. There’s a blog about the two subspecies here: Godwits in, Godwits out: Spring-time on the Washes.

Using geolocators

One of the outstanding questions is ‘Do head-started birds migrate in same way and spend the winter in the same places as birds that were raised naturally’. Given that released chicks have generally behaved just like other youngsters, they probably do, but it would be nice to have proof. To provide an answer, geolocators have been attached to the flag-type ring on each of 22 head-started chicks and 20 wild godwits. When they return (and if they can be caught on their nests) these geolocators will be taken off and the data will be downloaded. Keep an eye on the Project Godwit website for new information.

Mark release

Newly-tagged adult is released

Geolocators do not only reveal the final destinations of migratory birds, they also provide information about stop-over sites. Given that the limosa species is in serious decline (there’s a blog about the 75% drop in the Dutch population), it is important to understand the habitat requirements and timing of movements during migration. Two adult birds from the Nene have been tracked using geolocators, both of which spent the winter in Senegal.

The class of 2018

morgan 2018

‘Morgan’ is one of the class of 2018. This chick has already been seen in Hampshire and hopefully the geolocator (attached to green flag) will reveal where it spends the winter.

And so to the second year… As you can read here, 2018 was a strange breeding season. It started with a flood and ended with a drought. A total of 55 eggs were taken from the Nene Washes, including early eggs that had to be rescued from a waterlogged wheat field. Despite the muddy state of many of the eggs, 38 chicks were reared successfully and the first five were spotted away from the Welney and Nene release areas before the end of July – four on the North Norfolk coast and one at Titchfield Haven, in Hampshire.

These sightings and all the others that will hopefully be reported in August and September, are really valuable. They confirm which birds have survived their first few weeks and months in the wild and give a good clue as to which birds the team might see next spring. If you see one of the young birds, which carry a lime E ring on the right leg, please report it via this website.

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Funding

Project Godwit is a partnership between RSPB and WWT, with major funding from the EU Life Nature Programme, The HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund, Natural England, the Heritage Lottery Fund, through the Back from the Brink Programme and Leica UK.


GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

 

Black-tailed Godwit and Curlew in France

In July 2018 there was a call for people to express their opinions on the issue of hunting Black-tailed Godwits and Curlews in France. This blog aimed to bring together some background to inform the discussion. The government decided to maintain the current situation until 30 July 2019: to shoot Curlew in some circumstances but to maintain a ban on shooting Black-tailed Godwits. There will be another review in the summer of 2019.

Problems for large waders

Oct 2017The Numeniini is the group of waders that includes curlews, godwits and the Upland Sandpiper. Globally this group is under threat – two species of curlew are probably already extinct. These long-lived species are threatened by pressures during the breeding season and, in some parts of the world, reduced annual survival.

Click here to read a blog about the threats to large waders.

Conservation of migratory species

The Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) is an intergovernmental treaty dedicated to the conservation of migratory waterbirds and their habitats across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago.

Developed under the framework of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and administered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), AEWA brings together countries and the wider international conservation community in an effort to establish coordinated conservation and management of migratory waterbirds throughout their entire migratory range.

Eurasian Curlew

RC picEurasian Curlews are listed as Near-Threatened by BirdLife/IUCN. Shooting of this species has ceased in western Europe, apart from France. A moratorium (pause) was put in place in France in 2008 but that was amended in 2012 to allow shooting on the coast, which is where many of the Curlews are to be found. Shooting of Curlews ceased in Great Britain in 1981, in Northern Ireland in 2011 and Ireland in 2012. The partial moratorium in France was extended until 30 July 2018 and then to 30 July 2019.

LPO (Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux), the BirdLife International partner in France, argue that shooting of Curlew should cease or at least that that there should be another moratorium, for at least three years, covering coastal as well as inland areas.

Jan 2018 extinction riskAn AEWA (Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds) plan of 2015 called for an immediate end to hunting and for an Adaptive Harvest Management process to be set up to recommend if any hunting could be sustained. Continuedcurlews in france shooting in France must surely be in contravention of the international plan? Here’s a link to the AEWA Action Pan for Eurasian Curlew.

Tens of thousands of Curlew spend the winter in France, migrating here from across Northern Europe. The purple dots on the map alongside represent the recovery locations of Curlew ringed in Britain and Ireland. Many of these ringed birds have been found in breeding areas, especially Finland, but there are plenty of reports in coastal France, most of which are birds that have been shot.

Click here to read a blog explaining why we should be worried about Curlews.

Black-tailed Godwit

subspeciesTwo subspecies of Black-tailed Godwit spend time on French estuaries; limosa and islandica. The size of the islandica subspecies is increasing, as the breeding range in Iceland expands (blog about this) but the number of limosa is in rapid decline. Limosa birds that spend time in France breed in the Netherlands and surrounding countries, including a small number that breed in the washes of East Anglia. You can read about the 75% decline in the Dutch breeding population in this blog.

Picture7Agreements signed by partners of AEWA and members of the European Union included a five-year moratorium (pause) in shooting of Black-tailed Godwits in the whole of France. This was extended for a further five years, up until 31 July 2018 and then for one more year, until 30 July 2019.

It is hard (or even impossible) to separate islandica from limosa Back-tailed Godwits and we know that they occur in mixed flocks. Scientists have been colour-marking Black-tailed Godwits of both subspecies for many years and birdwatchers can help to assess the relative threat to limosa by reporting colour-ring sightings. You can read more about the value of colour-ring sightings here:

Godwits & Godwiteers 

Project Godwit

blog ManeaBlack-tailed Godwit is still on the French quarry list but there is an ongoing hunting moratorium (pause) that, as for inland Curlew, ended on 31 July 2018 but was extended to 30 July 2019.

LPO argue that, given that it is not possible to distinguish the two subspecies, Black-tailed Godwit should be removed from the quarry list or, alternatively, that there should at least be another moratorium (of at least three years).

Result of the consultation

As indicated at the start of this blog, a decision was made in July 2018 that nothing would change for another year. There would be a complete ban on the hunting of Black-tailed Godwit in France until 30 July 2019 and permission was granted to continue to hunt coastal Curlew. Link here.

Evidence is being collected by conservation scientists that will hopefully inform the decisions that are made as to what should happen after 30 July 2019.


GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.